Saturday, April 21, 2012

Nothing to Hide and Everything to Declare

When I finally step out of the station, my thoughts are neither about hunger nor food; these are about order and stability. Walking back, I am mulling over the entire experience, admiring the way things function here. Be it the airport, railway station or the coach station, it’s the orderliness of the English life that strikes everyone, especially an Indian mind that often assumes that chaos is the most natural state for a man to live in. Whosoever said that India is a ‘functional anarchy’ perhaps could not have put it any better. What I find truly amazing is that here everything appears to work to a plan. It’s almost as if there is not a single cog out of place in this huge wheel. It moves as though it is well oiled and well heeled, and grease is something it would never ever require. Just when I was about to break into a hymn in praise of English orderliness, I stepped inside a phone booth across the street. What I saw inside made me wonder if I was right about whatever I had understood about the notion of order and stability. It was while inserting the phone-card into the phone that I found several provocative, hot and steamy photographs staring back at me. Small advertisements, displaying all kinds of women, half-naked or barely clothed, baring their bosoms or fingering their private parts, with telephone numbers and inviting, come-hither messages. These messages were about phone-sex or paid-sex, mistresses or girl friends of all shades and hues, black, white, Thai or Latino. Was this just another face of a society that could justifiably pride itself on its impeccable, flawless sense of order? Was this order only skin-deep? Was there a raging tumult of sex and passion waiting to explode or go bust (that pun is most certainly not unintended)? Was this just another side to this information society? Or was it merely an expression of an unhindered freedom of speech? Whatever it may be, one thing is clear that ‘sex’ is not a private affair in English society. It is something of a public performance, a way of demonstrating to others, more than oneself or one’s partner that you do care or do love. Later when I saw an endless stream of couples, young and not-so-young, hugging and kissing each other or coiled up in each other’s lap, unconcerned making an open display of the emotions or passions they either felt or never felt, I was surprised, less and less. Who were they trying to convince of the intensity of their feelings, themselves or others? It was almost as if the walls of bedrooms in several houses had collapsed all of a sudden and I was left peering inside or was it now, outside? The words of the thickset man behind the counter at Heathrow inevitably rang in my ears, ‘There’s no place in London as cheap as this.’ But the telephone booth appeared to suggest otherwise. Sex, it appeared to proclaim, was cheap; cheaper than the hotel-room where it could be bought and performed. It made me somewhat less guilty about the uncivilized way in which I had satiated my hunger earlier on in the day. The hunger that rises a little below the stomach is perhaps much more unsettling than the one that rises from it. 
Late in the evening, quite accidentally, I had turned in to BBC 2. Louis Theroux was cruising the streets of US again, in his inimitable style, searching for yet another subculture. And this time his cameras had trained themselves on Porn Industry in the US, picking up some lurid images that easily reminded me of the pictures I had seen inside the phone booth, earlier on in the evening.  It was sheer curiosity, of whichever kind you might say, that made me stay tuned in. Was I disappointed? Frankly, no Louis Theroux had managed to trick me in. Much before I could sit back, turning into an incorrigible voyeur, he had already slipped out of his position of narrator-commentator and become a subject himself. An aspirant model, hunting for an assignment that could, quite literally, help him ‘strip off’ all his talents.
He went ahead and got himself photographed in nude from one of the agencies that did talent hunting for the industry. It was quite bizarre! Perhaps, he was going too far in search of a journalistic story or was this his way of creating sympathy for his subject? Here were men and women, willing to risk everything they had, including their lives, by making ‘live performance love’ to just about anyone, all for what they called ‘great money.’ It was interesting to see how Louis was on the trail of subcultures in American society, when his society had far too many of its own thriving in its backyard. If every spectator were to become a participant and every voyeur, a victim, perhaps human world would have a much better understanding of itself than what it has today. These are the two faces of English society, one that makes ‘cheap sex’ available and the other that warns against the dangers of giving in to it.
Sex is an absorbing subject, but only for the great minds. Yes, someone like Freud could talk about it intelligently. For lesser beings like us, it is not a matter to be theorised, only to be performed and experienced. Or perhaps, one could digress, as we often do, when ‘sex’ is the subject and talk not of the performance, but of the post-office. It was only my first day in England and I was already looking for a post-office where I could buy a few aerograms to be able to write letters back home. It was, indeed, amazing the way in which I had suddenly found myself outside a post-office quite by chance. As I bent down to ask for the aerograms, I saw an Asian face looking up at me; a long face with buckteeth and hair blown back. Handing in a pack of ten aerograms at a concessional rate of one pound ninety, she surprised me by asking a personal question I least expected her to, “Are you from India?” When I told her that I was from Chandigarh and had just come in that day, her face did not light up. It fell rather unexpectedly as she mumbled, “I, too, am from Chandigarh. My parents live in Sector 35.” I told her that we, too, had stayed for long, not very far from her parents. Our conversation over, I came out. I do not think we are ever likely to meet again. Though we may not meet, I would perhaps always remember that a little way off the Belgrave Road is a post-office where a woman from Chandigarh sits behind the counter, selling stamps and envelops. It is strange how sometimes fleeting moments seal off bonds one may never be able to return to, ever. And repeating the name of Chandigarh had worked like a mantra. It had carried me back home almost instantly. Walking back to the hotel, I was already writing out the letter in my head. Back in the room, they just had to be copied down. There was so much to write and so little space within which I'd have to write it all. For a traveller in a foreign land, what he experiences always exceeds what he expresses and what he expresses is always much more than what he can ever make sense of. It is something like the excess baggage we all carry, hiding it from the prying eyes of the customs or the airline officials. When it comes to experiences, we can easily off-load it and say, ‘Well, I have nothing to hide and everything to declare.’
Much as you want to, you always find things to hide when you travel abroad. There are always things you like to stuff in those corners of your bags where no one can easily find them. Just as you press down secrets in your heart that threaten to break out into the open. One thing that I had not been able to declare to Christine Wilson was my pathetic ignorance about the computers. When in her letter she had sought to know which computer programme I used, Microsoft Word or Word Perfect, I simply didn't have the heart to tell her 'neither.' It was perhaps hard for her to imagine that there were people living in certain parts of the world who still managed life without the computers. Only on arriving in England was I to learn that professional life was, indeed, inconceivable without computer(s). How could I tell her that I had a certain dread of computers and that the very sight of the machine filled me with all kinds of unimaginable fears! While indicating my determined preference for the Microsoft World, I had not quite anticipated how my harmless lie would return to haunt me, one day. It was not much of a lie, really. Before starting from home, I had taken a crash course in computers from Roopinder, a friend. He had overestimated either his own ability to teach or mine to learn. Armed with a crash course but little practical experience of using computer, I had landed in Norwich, only to be given a Toshiba laptop. I still remember how triumphantly I had walked back to Norfolk TerraceA.03, laptop in one hand and the printer in another.
Though I had little understanding of computers, whenever I thought of acquiring a PC, it was none other than a laptop. Mohan Bhandari has a story on a young man whose childhood dream of becoming a poet had been soured by his poverty and he had ended up as a donkey-herd. It is perhaps not right for the mule-herds to dream of becoming poets. Nor is it quite right for someone mulish to dream of acquiring something as poetic as a laptop. I had visions of endless reams of papers rolling off the printer as I worked on the laptop through the night. So the moment I reached my flat, I cleared off the table and created the space where laptop could sit in all its splendid glory. I fixed up the wires as best I could, plugged the switch in and waited for the miracle to happen. Roopinder had warned me that I should not use the computer until I had read the instructions very carefully. Ignoring his cautious advice, I decided to press on ahead when it offered no resistance and instead obeyed all the commands I keyed in. I was already typing out a short story. Lo and behold!  My work had begun with a singular flourish. So overjoyed was I with this initial success that I could not simply wait to get through to the end of the story. I decided to take the printouts of the very first page I had so cleverly keyed in. Pressing the print command, I relaxed in my chair, waiting for the laser printer to show its magic. The printer ran full steam, but nothing came off it. I checked all the points and repeated the command. This time, a few jumbled letters spluttered off the printer and again it stopped. How could a mere printer fail me when I was so close to success! I simply refused to accept defeat and in my impatience pressed, I don’t really know, how many and which all commands. Even a child balks when he is given contradictory commands and this was, after all, a computer. It immediately went into a long sulk. Believe it or not, it just got into a logjam and stopped functioning. By now, signs of real worry had begun to appear on my brow. Beads of perspiration thickened as the prospect of having ruined a BCLT computer on my very first day of arrival in Norwich came back to haunt me. What would happen now? How would I face Christine? Where would I take the computer for repairs? All kinds of questions started hammering inside my head. Meanwhile, it flashed a sudden message, which dipped my spirits only further as it said, ‘Low battery.’ That moment I just wanted to run out of the room, into the wilderness of the forest outside. It was becoming impossible to stay closeted with this computer in the same room, any longer. I rushed out for some fresh air, thinking it just might help my mind or bring the computer back to life through some unexpected miracle; neither happened. On the contrary, as I was gingerly walking back to my room, half an hour later, I lay surrounded by all kinds of feverish, nightmarish images. I could see the computer going kaput right before my eyes, sparks flying out, my room and my flat on fire. And the next moment I heard Christine tell me, ‘Oh dear, I’m afraid, you’re being asked to return home.’ I’m sure people have had to face deportation for several reasons, but never for the kind of reasons I then imagined myself being deported for. Now, when I think about it, I can afford to laugh at it. But that moment it was a question of life and death. My blood pressure had suddenly plummeted and so had my confidence. More than the blood pressure, I was concerned about the fall of my confidence for it can sometimes help us sail through situations, which are otherwise hopeless. It was, after all, April 8. So the number eight had played its sinister role, again. It was hard to believe that this black numerical sign of Saturn had come all the way from India, tugging at my sleeves to this far-off land of the whites. Does our destiny travel with us? Do our superstitions and prejudices overleap themselves, travelling faster than we do? Is travelling a way of confirming one’s half-baked ideas or growing out of them? I am yet to know and discover.
Often when we travel to other cultures, we carry a cartload of stereotypes with us. We continue to look at the people through this invisible, myopic lens permanently grafted to our eyes. It is always more convenient to fit people into the categories we know rather than invent categories to fit our knowledge of people after we have known them. Besides, how does one know people well enough to be able to talk about them with a degree of certitude? Was it Eliot who said, “What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them! They have changed since then, but to pretend…” yes, when it comes to knowing people, one always has to pretend that one does know. My first meeting with Peter Bush, the Director of BCLT, was surprisingly informal I had been with him for barely ten minutes when he looked at his watch and declared, “How about some lunch?” It was still 12.30 p.m. and I was quite undecided. He thought my hesitation was a sign of affirmation. Coming out of his office and peeping into Christine’s, he asked her to join as well and together we walked down the long corridor of the Arts building, talking of translation and English weather. Of course, he did most of the talking and I, the listening. I was still at a stage where one listens more than one talks, and one observes more than one sees; something of a silent stage that a child goes through in the process of language learning.
As he was leading us into the Bowl, the campus restaurant, I noticed his impressively tall frame, which occasionally gave him a natural swagger as he walked. But that was not a sign of arrogance as I was to soon discover. Once in, he not only bought lunch for both of us but also carried our trays across to the table. Looking at him, I wonder if an Indian professor in a similar situation would have ever done what he had. Peter certainly had no professorial airs and graces and was remarkably unpretentious, quite the observe of what I had anticipated an average British professor to be. Where was the proverbial stiff upper lip or the somber, self-absorbed look, I wondered all to myself as Peter quizzed me about my other interests, apart from translation! His soft and benignly curious eyes often peered at me from behind a bespectacled face, wonderstruck, especially when I made some off-the-cuff comment, which to my discomfiture I did make quite often. It was my first ever meeting with a British professor and though he was disarmingly informal and courteous, I was certainly more self-conscious and guarded than was necessary. All along I was being cautions, avoiding an unfavourable impression upon him or Christine. It was, I suppose, this self-consciousness that often led me into the trap from which I was desperately trying to save myself. After we had finished our meals, I stood up, little realising that the tray had to be carried back to the kitchen. Halfway across the hall as I turned back, I saw Peter lifting my tray off the table. Do I need say what an acute embarrassment it was!
Without a word, Peter had made it known to me that while I was in Britain it won’t be a bad idea for me to practise a wee-bit of self-help. And this was the beginning of my education in the mores and customs of the English society. I was to learn in the days to come that self-help was not only an important part of table manners in a restaurant but almost a national attitude, practised on a much wider scale. It was perhaps the only survival kit that an advanced, competitive society puts at the disposal of its people to get through the daily business of living. Later, at every stage, I was to learn the importance of self-help. Whether it was the computing centre or the library, one had to know how to find one’s way or to get around things. A certain amount of basic techno-literacy was almost taken for granted. For instance, it was expected that once you were given your user number and a password, you knew exactly how to operate your e-mail account. (It took me good fifteen days to start using it without getting into many scrapes). Or walking into the library, you could not only sit in front of the computer but also access information on the books and periodicals available there (I had to seek Eliff’s intervention and that I did, after much hesitation, that lasted, if you please, only a little less than a month). Or that net surfing was as much your passion as it was anyone else’s. (I got to read The Tribune after a month and a half, first time on May 20). Perhaps it was hard for the English society to imagine that there were people in the world who were simply neo-literates in computer and almost illiterate when it came to its multiple operations. (Apparently, I’m not making any insinuations, only talking of my own peculiar case). Not that there was any dearth of information; it was everywhere. In catalogues, brochures, tables and assorted printed material, even on the tip of people’s tongue; only it rolled off the white tongues very rarely. The personal help was not given, unless it was actively and consciously sought. Having put everything down in black and white, it was as though the English had absolved themselves of the responsibility of sharing information through human agencies. That is when it dawned on me, for right reasons or wrong, that a society becomes advanced not when it invents things or starts using them in daily life, but only when it begins to rely less upon the spoken word and more upon the written word. It’s the transition of a society from the inchoate oral stage to the orderly materialization of the written stage that actually puts it way ahead of others. As people begin to speak to each other more and more through the written documents such as books, reports, diaries, newspapers and recorded histories, they also begin to speak less and less to each other. What makes people more productive is exactly what makes them more impersonal, too. Meeting Peter has been quite thought provoking. Walking back to my flat, I’m already turning over in my mind the possibility of fighting long spells of silence that lie ahead, of course, with black ink spilling over reams and reams of white paper.
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(Excerpts from TO ENGLAND, WITHOUT APOLOGIES: A Travelogue)  


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